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The US has placed Israeli business NSO Group on a blacklist due to its use of spyware.

The US Commerce Department placed Israeli business NSO Group and Candiru on a blacklist on Wednesday, accusing them of delivering spyware to foreign governments that "maliciously targeted" journalists, diplomatic staff, and activists.

The Israeli enterprises were added to the Commerce Department's so-called "entity list," essentially prohibiting them from purchasing software components from US vendors without a license.

Positive Technologies, a Russian corporation, and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, a Singaporean organization, were also added to the list. The Department of Commerce charged these two companies of trafficking " cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access to information systems"

Taken together, it's one of the most significant moves of Biden administration to prevent the sale of hacking tools that have been linked to human rights violations throughout the world, according to experts.

The Commerce Department said in a statement that "Today's action is a part of the Biden-Harris Administration's efforts to put human rights at the center of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression."

The Commerce statement was blasted by NSO Group. The company said in a statement that it is "dismayed by the decision," adding that "our technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus we will advocate for this decision to be reversed"

According to the statement, "We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world's most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based [on] the American values we deeply share which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts [sic] with government agencies that misused our products."

Requests for response from Positive Technologies and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy were not immediately returned. Candiru was unavailable for comment.

Positive Technologies was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in April after it was accused of giving help to Russia's FSB spy service. Any impropriety on the part of the company has been denied.

NSO Group has long been accused by cybersecurity experts and human rights campaigners of providing intrusive and easy-to-use mobile hacking tools to authoritarian countries. According to security experts, the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was used to spy on a Moroccan journalist and activist, as well as the widow of a dead Mexican journalist. (According to NSO Group, their software is exclusively sold to approved customers for law enforcement and terrorist tasks.)

The rise of the market for hacking tools, as well as the capacity of other countries to swiftly create their own cyber capabilities using American expertise, has disturbed US government officials. For example, in September, the Justice Department announced charges against three former US intelligence and military agents for allegedly assisting in the development of a hacking program for the government of the United Arab Emirates.

"The US Department of Commerce's designation is a very positive first step to bringing some public accountability and order to this otherwise poorly regulated marketplace," said Ron Deibert, head of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which has investigated suspected Pegasus misuse.

Other countries may follow the US in blacklisting spyware producers, according to Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at nonprofit Access Now.

As Krapiva said to CNN, the US is "saying these companies are in fact acting in violation not only of universal human rights, but also US national security. US blacklisting them likely means that other democratic powers will have to respond in a similar way and we strongly encourage them to."

By Flexi Team

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